The 2015 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Citizenfour, begins in January, 2013. Filmmaker, Laura Poitras, receives an encrypted email from an anonymous source purporting to hold evidence that the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on and invading the privacy of its citizens on a tremendously large scale. Fast forward several months and Poitras, along with The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, made their way to Hong Kong to meet their contact in person for the first time.
At this point, we are introduced to Edward Snowden.
To watch Laura Poitras’s Citzenfour unfold over its two-hour runtime is to feel profoundly aware that one is watching history take place before your very eyes. Due to Laura Poitras documenting the events as they were occurring, Citizenfour at times ends up feeling more like some sort of spy thriller than a documentary.
It’s the sort of story that would be met with incredulity if it were used in a piece of fiction, so the fact that it is all true makes Citizenfour seem like a horror film, too. It is fascinating and tense in equal parts to witness the fallout from Greenwald’s first reports, for example, from the intimate perspective of Snowden in his small hotel room many miles away from the epicentre.
The nature of the story means that Poitras is forced to film the documentary mostly in Snowden’s hotel room. Therefore, Citizenfour is quite dry; exhibiting very little cinematic flair. But the claustrophobic nature makes Citizenfour an illuminating character study.
We’ve all probably heard a lot about Edward Snowden, treason-mongering whistleblower extraordinaire that he is. Citizenfour observes Snowden meticulously, giving us the most detailed insight into the man. There’s an awful lot of talk about the extent of the US government’s mass surveillance (which may be difficult to follow at times), but we see him in candid back-and-forths with Poitras and Greenwald, we see him irritated trying to gel his hair.
This adds a poignancy that underpins the entire documentary. As we watch Edward Snowden we see an ordinary man who has knowingly destroyed any chance of a normal life to do what he believes is right. To him, the truth is too important – more important than any one person. It’s as admirable as it is desperately sad.
Citizenfour never stretches itself artistically. It is a simplistic, safely executed document of information chilling in its complex ramifications. But it is information that transcends any need for cinematic peacocking and in that regard Citzenfour is incredibly important viewing. (8)